Does Telling People to “Think Positive” Actually Help? An Informal Survey and Some Protips

Positive thinking is the bane of my existence. Not because I can’t do it, but because I’ve so often been exhorted to do it in the most unhelpful of ways. I’m someone who prefers to talk mostly about the neutral or negative aspects of my life to friends and family because I don’t want to seem like I’m bragging, which probably leads people to assume that I have difficulty “thinking positively” (and I wouldn’t blame them). Of course, during periods of depression, positive thinking is mostly impossible, but when I’m feeling relatively healthy I’m actually quite optimistic.

Point is, I’ve gotten a lot of unsolicited advice to “think positive!” and “look on the bright side!” and “just try to find the silver lining!” Chances are, I’ve either done that already, or I’m not going to be able to do it no matter how many times one tells me to.

So despite the fact that I’m actually quite adept at finding reasons to be hopeful and getting good things even out of bad situations, being told to do so, even though it’s almost always well-meaning, usually rubs me the wrong way. Like, what, you don’t think that “thinking positively” occurred to me? And for that matter, when you tell people to “think positively,” does anyone ever go, “Oh wow, I didn’t even realize I could do that! Thanks so much!”?

And yet thinking positively helps me, and it must help many other people or else people would quit telling each other to do it. I wanted to find out more about the contexts in which people find it helpful to be reminded to “think positive” versus the ones in which they don’t, so I did an extremely informal survey of my online friends and followers. I basically asked (I’m paraphrasing here), “Does it ever help you to be told to ‘think positive’?”

Disclaimer: This is not “research,” this is just me asking people I know about their opinions. Maybe if I’d gone for that PhD after all, you’d be reading about this in Science someday, but that’s not going to happen.

Some people said that it doesn’t help at all:

Nope. I find it helpful when people genuinely ask thoughtful questions and then actively listen. Pat answers are a brush off, nothing more.

No. Usually it just makes me feel like I have to shut up now because the person is done listening.

I think just saying “think positive” is a limiting concept since it doesn’t teach anyone how to change negative self talk to positive.

“Think positive” as a general suggestion can actually be harmful – it doesn’t enable its recipient to solve a problem any more than they were before, and can easily lead to an affected individual thinking they’re at fault for being unable to fix something simply by failing to think positively.

“Just think positive” almost always comes couched with The Secret or other metaphysics bullshit in my life. Sooooo I cringe whenever I hear it.

I also don’t think it helps, but for me it’s because it feels like an invalidating thing to say. I’d rather my feelings be acknowledged for their authenticity than be dismissed for not being all sunshine and rainbows like they “should” be.

Telling myself to think positively also occasionally helps, but not always. Other people telling me that does not generally help, particularly since if someone is telling me “just think positive” it’s usually in the context of, I’ve told them some specific problem I’m worrying about and they’ve given me “think positive” as a non-answer.

not when by someone who lacks knowledge of my life and circumstances. Not when I’m clinically depressed, at all.

I’ve never found it helpful, and now I understand that the reason I’ve always found it so upsetting is that the statement comes from a place of neurotypical privilege. My visceral response is almost always “Don’t you think I’ve TRIED THAT ALREADY. Seriously, if it were that simple I would FEEL BETTER.”

I think the logic behind “think positive” and “look on the bright side” are, er, “positive” alternatives to “you like being sad.” They all stem from this idea that is it the person’s own doing, that it is something the individual can control but isn’t trying hard enough, etc. But real depression and anxiety are caused by something beyond the individual’s ability to control.

There aren’t enough characters here for all the four-letter words.

A few said it does:

Certainly. I usually have negative expectations, and have to be reminded to consider positive outcomes. Otherwise, I’d never try anything.

In a really weird way it can me. Like it pisses me off, but it’s a good reminder at the same time.

The majority, however, gave an answer that was basically either “Yes, but” or “No, unless.” And these people generally hit on the same basic point:

It has, if people point out *actual* positive things about the situation.

Yes, but not if they are being dismissive. If they are like, “what about x, and y” then yes. But dismissive, NO.

It can sometimes be helpful to be reminded OF something good, but it doesn’t really help just to be told “look on the bright side.”

It depends entirely on who’s saying it to me. Like if my bestie tells me to chin up it’s entirely different then some random ass fuck

Not as a general statement, no. What has occasionally helped is if someone breaks down a situation and specifically outlines possible positive outcomes – but you can’t just think your way to them.

Although I have found it helpful to try to find the positive aspect in a bad situation, and if I find one I will point it out (especially if the “bright side” is actually black humor), telling people to just generally look on the bright side of life is horse hockey.

Only if they’ve got evidence that says I should. Saying that emptily just sounds like “smile, emo kid!” #ThingsThatDrainMyPacifism

Sometimes, especially if it’s offered along with an example of a silver lining I may have overlooked.

These aren’t nearly all of the responses, but looking through these and the others I got, I hit upon a few major themes that may help you discern whether or not telling someone to “think positive” is worthwhile:

1. Mental Illness

One of the worst things about disorders like depression and anxiety is that they rob you of your ability to be hopeful and think positively. It’s not that you’re not trying, it’s that you can’tSo, when someone’s dealing with sadness, stress, pessimism, etc. that’s brought on by a mental illness as opposed to just “faulty” thinking, telling them to “fix” their thinking isn’t going to be helpful.

2. Proof

Many people said that being advised to think positively helps when they’re actually given “proof” that there’s something to think positively about. Otherwise it just sounds like an empty platitude; if the person who’s telling you to “think positive” can’t even come up with a reason why, that’s not reassuring.

3. Closeness

It feels different to be told to “think positive” by someone who actually knows you very well than, as one person said, by “some random ass fuck.” Although nobody elaborated on why, I can think of several reasons. It’s easier to trust that someone who knows you well generally wants to help you rather than to just get you to stop talking about sad stuff. Someone who knows you well is also more likely to know what helps you. They’re also more likely to actually understand your situation, making advice to “think positive” sound much less flippant than it would otherwise.

In general, telling people to “just think positive” has the same problems as, for instance, telling people to just stop being hurt by bigoted comments or to just learn to keep saying no to persistent unwanted sexual advances: it doesn’t actually help them to do these things. Changing the way you think and feel isn’t like flipping a switch. It requires hard work and practice, just like learning a language or a musical instrument.

Generally that’s a job for a therapist or perhaps a really good self-help book, but if you’d like to help facilitate that process for someone, here are some scripts to help them learn to think more positively without doing the annoying and dismissive “Just look on the bright side!” thing:

  • “That sounds like a tough situation to be in. Is there anything you could do that would make it easier right now?”
  • “Do you think anything good can come of this?”
  • “I’m sorry, that really sucks, but just know that I/your friends/your family will be here to support you.”
  • “Would it help if we went out and did something fun to help you get your mind off of it?”
  • “I know it seems pretty awful right now, but I think you will come out a stronger person because of this.”

Note that these don’t work for everyone and are very dependent on the situation, so use your best judgment. But these are all things that have really helped me to hear at one point or another. And notice that a lot of them involve asking, not telling. Don’t tell people to think positively or do something to get their mind off of it; ask them if they’re able or willing to.

And as with all things emotional, affirming whatever the person is feeling right now is the most important thing. Even if it’s negative! Their emotions are valid even if you don’t understand them or think that they’re productive.

Why Are Adults So Negative?

[Snark Warning, TMI Warning]

No, really, that’s a legitimate question. Why are people older than me–even by just a few years–so eager to put down all of my hopes and dreams?

Let me give a few nonspecific examples of Things Older People Have Said recently to me:

  • “You know, guys really don’t go for complex women.” (Women like me, that is, in the context of that conversation.)
  • “Oh, trust me, by the time you have a job, you’re not going to care about making a difference. It’ll just be about how you hate your boss and can’t wait to go home by the end of the day.”
  • “You’re never going to be successful if you don’t learn how to be pushy.”
  • “It’s going to be even harder to make friends after college, you know.”
  • “You’re gonna go for a PhD? You do realize how much work that is, right?”
  • “Psychologists don’t make that much money. You should try to get an MD instead.”

Perhaps you Well-Meaning Adults are all under the impression that I have excessively high expectations and need a Dose of Healthy Realism to prevent myself from getting disappointed later on. Perhaps you just don’t realize what weight your words can carry for someone who is younger and looking for someone to help them find their way.

Well, this might be news to you, but I have a mental disorder that basically means that my expectations are already unhealthily low. That’s what depression does. It robs you of all the hope and optimism you used to have. Every bit of genuine excitement that I have for the future is something I’ve worked very, very hard to muster up. And guess what you’re doing. You’re taking it away from me.

People. My disorder does a perfectly fine job of putting me down all on its own. It really doesn’t need any help from you. I don’t need to be reminded of how hard it’s going to be to make friends, get a job, find a partner. Trust me, I’ve been over this in my mind over and over and over again Many, many sleepless nights. I’ve been over it until I’ve cried my head off and wanted to kill myself. Really. I do not need your help.

You know what, I appreciate that maybe your life didn’t turn out the way you wanted. And that sucks. I’m sorry you have a shit job, I’m sorry  you have an awful time meeting people and dating. If you’d like, feel free to tell me about that. Or go tell a therapist. Or whatever. But your experiences do not give you the right to take my hope away from me. Especially when you’re some measly three or four years older! Jesus Christ! You’re still finding your own way. You’re not dead yet. At least wait till you get your own kids before you start dispensing your Divine Wisdom to someone else.

I’m seriously considering kicking these people out of my life, because as much as I’ve always believed that friendship with people older than me is important and extremely valuable, I can’t have these people making me feel crappy all the time.

Why does this happen? I think we have a cultural stereotype of young adults as exceedingly cocky, optimistic, and entitled. Well, guys, you know what they say about people who assume. First of all, as I’m pretty sure everyone I’m acquainted with knows, I’m not even from this country. Take everything you know about “American Young Adults” and toss it the fuck out, because I grew up with a different cultural background, one in which humbleness and realism are prized qualities.

Second, even supposing I were the most typical American girl you can imagine, you should still quit it with the damn stereotypes already. Everyone has their quirks and idiosyncrasies. Some people come from broken families. Some people grew up poor. Some people have a disability, maybe one you can’t see. Some people read a ton of books when they were kids. Some people grew up being bullied in school. Some people have depression, anxiety, OCD, ADHD, a substance abuse disorder, autism or Asperger’s, or some other condition. Some people are just plain different!

So throw out those silly magazine articles about “Today’s Entitled Bratty Self-righteous Cocky Inept Stupid Young Adults” and see what’s right in front of you. Some of us are just trying to get by. Some of us are just trying to scrounge up every last shred of hope we have and keep on living. Just because I’m young doesn’t mean I think it’s all rainbows and butterflies ahead. I work hard to keep my chin up. Don’t you dare take that away from me.